Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 2, Junior High)

This is part 2 of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To read part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 2, Junior High)

The nature of friendships changes between elementary school and junior high school.  In elementary school I was friends with the boys my age who lived in my neighborhood; we played “Kick the Can” and climbed trees and traded comic books.  By junior high, though, friends are generally people who share the same interests.  I was slow to understand this transition and for a period of time in junior high I felt like I didn’t have any friends at all.  (I was also prone to self-pity!)

During this period, I frequently longed for a “best friend” – the kind of ideal companion found in books and movies.  I had a very romanticized perception of this friend in my mind, and frequently envisioned scenarios in which I would suddenly meet this guy and we would just immediately get along perfectly and want to spend every moment together.  I wanted more than just someone who shared my interests:  I wanted an exclusive, one-on-one relationship that would be deep and enduring.  I didn’t have the emotional sophistication to distinguish between the desire for a friend and the desire for something more.

For most of my teenage years I thought I would eventually be the father figure in the same kind of home in which I grew up.  I’d have a wife, some kids, a dog, and a house in the suburbs.  For many years I followed the steps I thought I was supposed to take to reach this goal.  My brother always had a girlfriend, so I felt a certain amount of pressure to have one as well.  When I was in junior high I asked a female friend if she wanted to “go” with me, and–voila– we were officially dating.  “Dating” meant we would get each other gifts on birthdays and at Christmas and occasionally go roller skating.  Eventually we broke up; I heard second-hand that she called me “slow.”  I can’t say that I blame her if she was frustrated by the pace of our relationship.  I liked her as a friend, but I was not physically attracted to her.

In the summer of 1983, when I was 15 years old, our church youth group had a discussion about homosexuality.  I don’t remember any details, but it’s one of the only youth group topics significant enough to rate a mention in my journal.  The same year, both Time and Newsweek ran cover stories on AIDS.  My parents had a subscription to Newsweek, and I have vague memories of seeing TV news stories about the disease.  Still, those stories were about adult men in San Francisco and New York, people who were far away and barely more real to me than the hobbits I was reading about in The Lord of the Rings.

That summer the first hint of a self-acknowledgement of my sexuality comes in two cryptic journal entries that look something like this:

CB–AZ, LX, YY, VB

“CB” stood for “cute boys” and the initials of the boys I thought were handsome followed the hyphen.  (The initials have been changed to protect the innocent.)  

It was both thrilling and terrifying to put something like this in my journal, even in a form it would be virtually impossible for someone else to decode.

Tomorrow, part 3 of Growing Up Blind – High School.

Image credit: John Warren

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 1)

National Coming Out Day founders Rob Eichberg, Ph.D. and Jean O’Leary encouraged all people, of all sexual orientations, to “take your next step” in living openly and powerfully on October 11th.

Today, it seems especially fitting that Esse Diem begins a five-part presentation of John Warren’s submission to the Essays on a West Virginia Childhood project. 

John is a long-time friend of mine.  We first met as very young children when our families were in the same Presbyterian Church in Charleston, and we later found each other again in junior high and high school.  He was always incredibly intelligent, compassionate and insanely funny.  One of those people you just know in your heart you will always adore and respect, he took my breath away when he told me he wanted to write about growing up gay in West Virginia.

John told me that this process of putting his experiences down in writing was not always easy but definitely valuable.  When I read his story, it immediately was clear to me that the essay has the potential to help others as well, both those who are homosexual as well as those who need to understand more about diversity and compassion.  I hope you will enjoy this week of John’s writing, and that you share it with others.

Growing Up Blind (part 1)

Although I was not born in West Virginia, I grew up there, and for the first eighteen years of my life, it was the only place I thought of as home.  I had a pretty normal childhood, but things got a bit confusing for me when I hit puberty.  I eventually realized that I was gay, but it took me a long time to admit it to myself and even longer to admit it to others.  In fact, I spent a large portion of my teen years wondering if homosexuality was a real thing or just some kind of urban legend. 

I have been an obsessive journal-keeper for most of my life.  I have filled more than forty notebooks with dutiful records of the day-to-day minutia of my life.  Reading old journals is fun, but it can also be painful and embarrassing.  Every once in awhile there’s a meaningful reflection or significant insight, but there’s a lot of useless crap, too.  (Did you know that in Super 102’s “Battle of the Bands” on March 25, 1985, “Celebrate Youth” by Rick Springfield defeated Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”?)  I wish I had recorded more deep inner thoughts and not so much about which TV shows I watched that day.

My incessant journaling is probably a byproduct of being a serious introvert and also being a bit of a geek.  I did well in school, but I was always a tad behind my classmates in my understanding of the workings of personal relationships.  In elementary school I had a simplistic view of morality that was probably most strongly influenced by Spider-Man comic books.  I was always kind of clueless about gender roles and I was never discouraged from having stuffed animals or listening to ABBA.

During sixth grade I hit puberty and it rapidly became clear that my older brother and the other boys in my class had an interest in girls that I didn’t share.  I instinctively knew that this was a bad thing and something to keep hidden.  There was an effeminate guy in my class who got picked on a lot, and I know that some people thought he was “gay.”  Personally, I didn’t believe it.  He was one of the best artists in our class and a nice guy, and I wasn’t convinced that there were really such things as gay people anyway.  “Gay” and “queer” were just words that bullies used when they were picking on someone who was different.  There were certainly no adults in my world who were openly gay, and I had never heard a teacher say anything about the existence of gay people.  

I never considered asking my parents about it; even if they had been open to discussing that kind of thing (which they didn’t seem to be), I don’t know if I could have even put the question into words at that age.

Tomorrow, part 2 of Growing Up Blind – Junior High.

Image credit: John Warren